Arbil favourites to retain crown
© AFP

Less than two months after the end of the last domestic league competition, a new season is due to get underway in Iraq. This will be the competition’s 39th edition and the battle for top place is sure to be fierce.

Last season’s winners Arbil, who also lifted the championship trophy three times in succession between 2006/07 and 2008/09, will have to face a challenge from Baghdad’s most venerable clubs - still smarting from their poor showing last time out. With all to play for and excitement guaranteed, FIFA.com casts an eye over the contenders.

The favourites
Arbil enter the fray on a high following their recent progress to the semi-finals of the 2012 AFC Cup. Their 4-1 win first-leg win over Thailand’s Chonburi puts the next stage within their grasp and Syrian coach Nizar Mahrous and his men will be dreaming of bringing home the club’s first-ever continental trophy.

Mahrous certainly has the pedigree. He has coached a number of clubs in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan as well as the Syrian national side, and will be looking to become the first coach to win the AFC Cup with two different teams - having won the 2008 edition with Jordan’s Shabab Al Ordon. In guiding Arbil to league victory last season he gave the club their fifth domestic title, putting them on a par with Iraq’s traditional powerhouses Al Quwa Al Jawiya and Al Talaba.

In a wise move, Arbil have retained the majority of the players responsible for last season’s success, including five current internationals and a number of former Iraq stars. In addition to their domestic talent, they have retained the services of Uganda’s Ivan Bukenya, Papa Diop of Senegal and Syrian star Nadim Sabag.

The pretenders
The biggest threat to Arbil’s supremacy are likely to be their northern neighbours Duhok, last term’s runners-up, who will be eager to reclaim the crown they won in 2009/10. Zakho are another team to watch out for after bolstering their ranks with new signings in the close-season break.

The big Baghdad sides can never be ignored, however. Despite finishing in eighth place last season, Al Zawraa are 12-time league champions, have the 2010/11 title to their name, and the changes they have made should be enough to put them back into contention.

Third-placed last time out, Al Quwa Al Jawiya’s coach Ayoub Odisho will be hoping to reclaim the trophy they last won in 2004/05. Fellow capital outfit Al Talaba, for their part, have not won the title for a decade and will certainly be looking to improve on last season’s fourth place.

Players to watch
Topping the list of players expected to make a strong impression this year is last term’s top goalscorer, Al Quwa Al Jawiya’s Hammadi Ahmed. He was followed by his fellow Iraq international Amjad Radhi, who joined Arbil last season, linking up with Louay Salah and Muslim Mubarak to form a formidable attacking line-up for the champions. Arbil have also signed up the experienced Hawar Mulla Mohammed alongside Salih Sadir, who has performed exceptionally in the AFC Cup.

The most notable trend in the pre-season transfer market has been the arrival of a number of Syrian players to the Iraqi league. Syria striker Firas Al Khatib makes his way to Zakho with Raja Rafe and Ala Shalaby, where they will join their countryman Feras Ismail. Al Zawraa have signed another Syrian, Zaher Midani, their second foreign signing after Nigeria’s Sadiq Wahhab.

Have your say
Can Arbil maintain their domestic supremacy or will Iraq’s historic heavyweights reclaim the glory?